Death on a Pale Horse by Benjamin West (1796). Animate Dead by Bastien L. Deharme.
When evaluating any mechanic, you want to examine it in the context of how well it will work in your format of choice. Today, we're going to take a long look at the new Ascend mechanic in Rivals of Ixalan. Is it playable in Commander? If it is, does it bring enough to a game to make any of the Ascend cards worth tracking down and throwing into your decks?
Since we're talking about Commander, we're often looking at a long game where card advantage really matters and cards that have a lasting effect on the field are far more valuable than most one-shot effects. We also have a bias toward larger creatures, but have to remember that every commander brings unique concerns to the game. Sometimes what looks like a bad card can be a great card if given the right general to lead it into battle.
The City's Blessing?
Yes — the city's blessing. I can't tell you which city. I'm not a lore guy. I'm not sure what I think about every battle between us Planeswalkers having to take place in or near a city, but I'll assume it makes sense in the context of the story of Magic right now.
To "Ascend" you obtain the city's blessing by having a card with the Ascend keyword under your control ,or cast by you, while you have 10 or more permanents under your control. You can't lose the city's blessing, so once you’ve got it, you’ve got it for the rest of that game.
At first glance, this seems ridiculously easy for our format. We often have 10 permanents, and it doesn't even restrict it to nontoken permanents. You can cobble together a small mana base, one or two creatures and a modest pile of saprolings, clues, or treasures and "get there". The big question is whether or not it's worth it.
The only way to figure that out is to take a look at the cards that have Ascend and try to evaluate how well they will play in Commander.
The Obligatory Mana Rock
It only produces colorless mana, but Orazca Relic will let you sacrifice it, gain 3 life and draw a card if you have the city's blessing. It's far from a Command Sphere, but there are times where extra draw options are essential and there are even rare instances where 3 life can make or break a game.
Card Draw might be the most important thing you can build into a deck, so let’s look at three of the card draw options this new keyword gives us.
Arch of Orazca is a land that will let you pay mana and tap it to draw a card if you have the city's blessing. That's just not an efficient way to draw cards in a format where we regularly play cards like Skullclamp, Rhystic Study, and Consecrated Sphinx. If you're stuck in Mono-Red or Boros () colors, have access to oodles of mana, or are desperate for options, this might be worth running. Otherwise there will usually be better options.
Kumena's Awakening is an enchantment for that will allow each player to draw a card at the beginning of your upkeep. If you have the city's blessing, only you draw a card. This is a pretty great return for the mana you'll be spending if it stays on the field for more than a few turns. You'll probably get Ascend by the time you get this enchantment online so usually it'll be just you drawing a card. This might be our first really solid Ascend card.
Secrets of the Golden City is a sorcery speed draw spell that costs and gets you 2 cards, or 3 cards if you have the city's blessing. That is a great return on your mana investment and I expect this card to see a lot of play in Commander. It’s basically a cheaper Harmonize in Blue. You can argue that by the time you have 10 permanents you’re at a part of the game where you want more advantage than just three cards for three mana. You’d be right that this isn’t good enough for some decks, but in casual and midrange Commander play I think this card will find a home.
If card draw is one of the most important things in Commander, creatures aren't far behind. While you might not appreciate smashing creatures together, if you're a true cEDH aficionado, you have to admit that creatures are a pretty core element of Magic. Fortunately there are loads of creatures with the Ascend mechanic for us to look at.
Our first category is made up of creatures that get a little bigger if you have the city's blessing, but don't get enough of a benefit for it to really matter in a game of Commander. These aren’t bad, they just aren’t particularly good in our format.
Dusk Charger is a 3/3 horse that costs and gets +2/+2 if you have the city's blessing. Snubhorn Sentry is a 0/3 Dinosaur that costs just one White mana. If you have the city's blessing he gets +3/+0. Spire Winder is a 2/3 flying snake who costs. If you have the city's blessing he gets +1/+1. None of these boosts are enough to matter much in a 40 life format.
Gaining a little power or toughness isn't a big deal, but these next three gain abilities that can open up a lot more space for a creative deck-builder.
Deadeye Brawler is a 2/4 for with deathtouch. If you have the city's blessing, Brawler will let you draw a card if he does combat damage to a player. Mausoleum Harpy is a 3/3 flyer for . If you have the city's blessing, you can put a +1/+1 counter on the Harpy each time another creature dies. Resplendent Griffin is a 2/2 flyer for . If you have the city's blessing, you get to put a +1/+1 counter on the Griffin when it attacks.
Card draw is great, and adding counters is the sort of thing that works really well with Commander. Long games can give you many more chances to add counters, and lots of cards let you move, proliferate or even double counters on your creatures. A little can go a long way, so these guys are all quite viable in the right Commander deck.
Adding keyword abilities to a creature can also be very powerful. In the right build, you can take an otherwise unassuming creature and turn it into a huge threat with a keyword and the right equipment or aura.
Skymarcher Aspirant is a 2/1 Vampire Soldier for one White mana who gains flying when you Ascend. Slippery Scoundrel is a 2/2 for . If you have the city's blessing, your Scoundrel gains hexproof and is unblockable. Storm Fleet Swashbuckler is a 2/2 for . If you have the city's blessing, this Swashbuckler gains double-strike. Adding the right card can make these guys very powerful.
Hand Slippery Scoundrel a Quietus Spike and suddenly you've got a way to start dealing with someone with a life total in the hundreds. Infect and combo work fine for that kind of challenge too, but my point is that these last three are decent and in the right situation could be great.
So far, it's looking like Ascend has a more to offer than I originally expected, but these cards aren't overwhelming. Many of them are good, but none are truly busted. So far, at least. Let's see what Ascend keyworded cards have been created to help pump up your whole team.
Pride of Conquerors is a team pump instant spell for that will give your creatures +1/+1 or +2/+2 if you have the city's blessing. In Commander, you'll only ever cast this when your team is big enough for it to matter, so you'll pretty much always be doing this for +2/+2. When you compare this with other instant speed team pump spells, this is a really good deal. It's not going to break the format, but it will have a place in decks that want to pump a team at instant speed and don't mind losing a card to do it.
Radiant Destiny is a tribal anthem that costs and will give creatures you control of the chosen type +1/+1. If you have the city's blessing they also get vigilance. It's well costed, and again, you'll pretty much always be able to get the vigilance bonus for your team.
Moving away from team-oriented spells, we’ve also got two removal spells that care about the city’s blessing.
Expel from Orazca is an instant for that will bounce target nonland permanent to its owner's hand. If you have the city's blessing, you may bounce it to their hand or put it on the top of their library instead. Golden Demise is a low-level board wipe, giving all creatures -2/-2 until end of turn for . If you have the city's blessing, this sorcery will leave your creatures untouched. The former is OK, but the latter is fantastic, especially if you play against decks that like to go wide and small.
So far, it looks like the big benefit of Ascend is that you’re almost always going to be casting these spells once you have 10 permanents. They seem to generally give you a good return on your mana investment, but also aren’t the types of open-ended cards that can bust a game wide open. We’re not done, so let’s keep digging.
The Final Six
These last six range from really good to fantastic and highly abusable in the right context. This is what the more competitive Commander players care about.
Tendershoot Dryad is a 2/2 for . At the beginning of each upkeep you create a 1/1 Green Saproling creature token. If you have the city's blessing, your saprolings get +2/+2. Maybe I’m biased, but anyone who has been playing with Tana, the Bloodsower or has a deck that makes lots of saprolings is going to want this guy.
Tilonalli's Summoner is a 1/1 for . When he attacks you can pay and create X 1/1 Red Elemental creature tokens that are tapped and attacking. They get exiled at the beginning of the next end step unless you have the city's blessing. Anyone who has played a Purphoros deck, or who cares about having lots of token creatures in Red should care about this card. It’s a fantastic token generator in a color that has some very dangerous strategies involving token generation.
Timestream Navigator is a 1/1 for . If you have the city's blessing you can pay , tap her and put her on the bottom of your library to take an extra turn. This might be the hidden (or not-so-hidden) gem in this group of cards. If you have a way to pair her up with Grenzo, Dungeon Warden, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be able to take as many turns as you like.
It’s hard to imagine we’ll see any cards as powerful as these last few, but we’ve got three more.
Twilight Prophet is a 2/4 flying Vampire Cleric. He costs . If you have the city's blessing, at the beginning of your upkeep you reveal the top card of your library and put it into your hand. Each opponent loses X life and you gain X life where X is that card's CMC. That can turn into a lot of damage in the right deck.
Vona's Hunger is an instant for that forces each opponent to sacrifice a creature. If you have the city's blessing, instead they each sacrifice half the creatures they control, rounded up. This is very powerful, but, fortunately for your opponent, it is just an instant. Pair this up with It that Betrays and you’ll have a pretty nice boardstate after casting Vona's Hunger with Ascend.
Wayward Swordtooth is a 5/5 Dinosaur for . He lets you play an extra land on each of your turns, but he can't attack or block unless you have the city's blessing. I didn’t save the best for last, but a 5/5 for three mana that lets you play an extra land on each of your turns is pretty amazing. For comparison, Mina and Denn, Wildborn cost more to cast and have a lower power and toughness, though they do bring an extra ability that the Swordtooth doesn’t have.
I could have ranked these Ascend cards, but your own decks and your own needs may not match mine. The value I see in Tendershoot Dryad is heavily influenced by my Sidar Kondo / Tana, the Bloodsower deck, but many of you might not care one bit about a saproling lord. That’s the bottom line in Commander. Some cards are universally good or bad but many need to be looked at in the context of the decks you play and the ways that you will be able to use or abuse them.
Five Color Ascend?
One of the questions I came into this article with was whether or not a five color ascend deck could actually work in Commander. I think the answer is unsurprising. It would be a sneaky midrange deck that doesn’t seem like it’s got much to bring to the game, but lots of its cards would bring you good value. You’d probably want to build around abusing specific cards and you’d want tutors so if you drew into a particular Ascend card you could go get the card you needed to make the most of it.
Ascend is really good in Commander.
You wouldn’t want to play lots of Ascend cards in a deck that doesn’t develop much of a board state or that plays so fast that your game is over well before you get to 10 permanents. This is a keyword that belongs in midrange Commander games, not cEDH games.
The cards all seem to represent better value than you would normally get from another card with the same ability. A few of them are very strong in the right situation, but not game-enders on their own. Ascend is really good but benefits from involving a requirement that is really easy for Commander players to meet.
That’s all I’ve got for you this week. What do you think? Will you be building Ascend into any of your Commander decks or are you looking at any of these cards as auto-includes? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please share them either below or on either of the EDH Facebook groups where I post links to Commanderruminations every Monday.
Thanks for reading!